Phelps hopes scene-stealing '03 proves just opening act for '04

After record-setting year, he sets sights on Athens, chance for a golden haul


December 30, 2003|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

He remains a curio item in some sporting corners, hence his No. 63 designation in ESPN's top 100 moments and personalities of the year, 16 notches behind an X Games angle and one in front of a political protest by a Division III women's basketball player.

An Olympic year arrives in less than 48 hours, however, and by next August, Michael Phelps' profile could be, well, to borrow one of his stock phrases, "huge."

As he prepares for 2004, Phelps can look back on a year that has him poised to provide not just the biggest story among more than 10,000 athletes in Athens, Greece, next summer, but also one of the most compelling in the history of the modern Olympics.

The most prolific Olympic feat came in 1972, when American swimmer Mark Spitz won seven gold medals.

Phelps, an 18-year-old from Rodgers Forge and the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, had maybe the best non-Olympic year ever by a male swimmer. In July's world championships, he posted five world records, one-upping even Spitz.

In six weeks that stretched from late June to mid-August, beginning with an unshaved world record in California and finishing with a fatigued one in College Park, Phelps displayed an uncommon range of ability and competitive ferocity.

Even his rare losses came with a silver lining. Ian Crocker's upset win in the world championship 100-meter butterfly supplied a year's worth of motivation.

"I had an awesome time doing it," Phelps said, "and I'm looking forward to this summer."

There are 13 individual events in the Olympic program. Phelps has met the U.S. Olympic trials qualifying standard in all but the 50 freestyle and 100 breaststroke, and he'll register to compete in the other 11.

Only Phelps and coach Bob Bowman know what events he will actually swim in, but indications are that they could aim at an unprecedented five individual gold medals.

"I don't think we'll change his approach to training," Bowman said of Phelps' arduous regimen, "but there have been changes in his life. There is more interest in him. There are more people spending money to have their name associated with his. He has more responsibility."

Speedo rewarded his world championship show in Barcelona, Spain, with a renegotiated contract that includes a $1 million bonus should he match Spitz's record medal haul. The Web site should be up and running any day now.

He purchased a tuxedo, rubbed elbows with corporate executives and had an NBC camera crew document his graduation from Towson High, but there were less-trumpeted moments to cherish.

Stevie Hanson, 8, is a third-grader at Pot Springs Elementary and a member of the Spring Lake Piranhas. At a local meet in summer 2002, Phelps autographed his T-shirt. Four months later, Hanson was found to have a brain tumor. His cancer is still being treated, and Phelps has supplied his own brand of therapy.

There were visits to the hospital, cheer baskets of junk food and bags of Olympic memorabilia. Last July, on the Saturday before Phelps headed to the world championships, he escorted Hanson to the starting blocks at a grass-roots summer meet and tried to blend in.

"No one knew he was coming," said Betsy Hanson, Stevie's mother. "The public address announcer pointed out that Michael was in attendance, and all hell broke loose. He spent the day signing autographs, borrowed a suit and swam in the parent-coach relay. His generosity has been remarkable. Stevie says he's a good guy."

Stevie was able to take in Phelps' final competition of the year, a low-key NBAC meet at Loyola College. A crowd of family and friends also included Fred Phelps, who hadn't spoken to his Michael, his son, since a falling out. When Fred made his way to the pool deck, Michael went to greet him, and the two talked for the first time since last June.

Speedo's Olympic bonus was the most publicized, but Peter Carlisle, his Octagon agent, negotiated other endorsement deals for Phelps. One is with a Southern California-based mortgage company, and though Argent's motto is land-based, it fits Phelps' agenda:

"In 2003, we pulled away from the competition. In 2004, we'll leave them in the dust."

Phelps: looking back ... and ahead

Three days to remember in 2003April 6, Indianapolis, Duel in the Pool: Two days after becoming the first man to win events in three of the four strokes at a U.S. national meet, Phelps came within .03 of a second of becoming the first to set world records in different events on the same day.

July 25, Barcelona, Spain, world championships: In less than 48 minutes, Phelps lowered the world records for the 100-meter butterfly and 200 individual medley. He became the first male - and the first drug-free - swimmer to establish world records in different events on the same day.

Aug. 13, College Park, Summer Nationals: For the fourth time in six weeks, Phelps lowered the world record in the 200 IM, to 1:55.94. No one else has broken 1:58.

Eight meets to monitor in 2004

Jan. 17-18, Auburn University: Phelps has been added to the Tigers' duel against Southern California.

Feb. 10-14, Orlando, Fla.: U.S. Spring Nationals

March 18-21, Annapolis: Maryland championships

April 2-4, Indianapolis: Grand Prix stop

May 21-23, Santa Clara, Calif.: Santa Clara Invitational

June 11-14, Meadowbrook Aquatic Center: NBAC June Long-Course Championships

July 7-14, Long Beach, Calif.: U.S. Olympic trials

Aug. 13-29, Athens, Greece: Olympic Games

Where Phelps stands

He ranks among the top three in seven of the 13 individual Olympic events:

200 freestyle: 1:45.99 (American record)

400 freestyle: 3:46.73 (American record)

200 backstroke: 1:56.10 (No. 2 in world)

100 butterfly: 51.10 (held world record)

200 butterfly: 1:53.93 (world record)

200 IM: 1:55.94 (fourth world record of '03)

400 IM: 4:09.09 (world record)

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